It appears that only a few short weeks after opening Osamil in the early fall of 2016, the three partners of Nomad Izakaya have another hit on their hands. At 5:00pm when Tom, the photographer for Manhattan Sideways, and I walked in, there were a few people milling about at the impressive white marble bar. By the time we left, about an hour and a half later, there was not a seat to be had upfront, and the tables for dinner were rapidly being filled.Both Nathan, the manager, and Moku, one of the owners, greeted us with big smiles, enthusiastically showing off the beautiful decor. Staring at the front mural - with 5th Avenue and 31st Street signs painted on it - Nathan enlightened us that O-sam-il means 5,3,1 in Korean. From their doorway, one can see the real signs outside. The numbers have added significance, because in addition to being on 5th and 31st, the restaurant's address is 5 West 31st.When the team first found this space, they had to strip everything down. When they came upon the brick wall on one side, they decided to sand it and leave it exposed. The end result is a checker board design that is strikingly different than other spaces I have seen. A Korean friend of Moku's did the mural on the rest of the wall. "We told him to do whatever he wanted - to use his imagination." Moonsub Shin did just that, creating a soft gray design that is soothing and beautiful.The wood tables and short stools are spread down the middle of the restaurant with a few booths along the edges. Liquor lockers span the entire opposite wall, filled with customer's personal alcohol. Be it a fine bottle of Scotch or a vintage wine or bourbon, customers are welcome to store whatever they would like in their secured cubby - for a small corkage fee. Straight in the back lies the open kitchen where Chef David Lee performs his magic. Osamil is different from more traditional Korean eateries found just a few blocks away. Here they are striving to be more "modern and upscale" while still being reminiscent of a typical Korean barbecue restaurant. After showing us around and chatting about Osamil, Nathan and Moku invited Tom and I to take a seat at the bar to await some dishes that we could photograph. Little did we realize that the presentation of these dishes would last for a delightful forty-five minutes. The first to arrive was a sizzling plate of cured shrimp, sauteed shishito peppers with broccoli rabe, and beef tartar. Each dish was presented on a unique plate as a culinary work of art. It was not long before a medley of grilled mushrooms and a large marinated lamb chop covered in a mix of herb and pine nuts were placed in front of us. While we watched Gelo, the bartender, whip up several intriguing cocktails, a 100-year-old oak board was put before us with a very large, crispy port shank. A knife and fork stuck out from the top and the shank was surrounded by a shaved apple salad, lettuce leaves, and three small bowls with an array of pickled relishes. Once Tom had finished taking photos of this impressive meal for two, he was instructed to grab a lettuce leaf and fill it with meat, salad, and a relish of his choice. It was great fun and, he assured me, very tasty. There is no doubt that Osamil is off to a fine beginning.
“We were just voted the best Asian barbecue restaurant in New York,” said Philip, the general manager of Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong. “We’re getting a lot of buzz these days, because Korean food is very trendy right now.” And Baekjeong, founded by Korean wrestler and TV personality Kang Ho-dong, is the trendiest of all. It is a favorite hangout of actors and celebrities, and has received high praise from celebrity chefs Anthony Bourdain and David Chang. At Baekjeong (the Korean word for “butcher”), meat is king. But while Korean barbecue traditionally makes use of the second-best cuts of meat, marinating them for flavor, Philip emphasized that Baekjeong uses only the highest-quality meat. “We don’t even marinate it,” he added. Between the quality of the meat and the reputation of executive chef Deuki Hong, a twenty-five year old prodigy who recently won the 2015 Young Guns Chef award, Baekjeong has become one of the hottest new restaurants in New York. The wait to be seated, Philip told me, is sometimes as long as an hour and a half. By all accounts, it is worth the wait. As customers munch on small starter dishes known as banchan, waiters prepare the meat - mainly beef and pork - on large metal grills set into each table. Another highlight at Baekjeong is dosirak, a traditional Korean children’s lunchbox filled with rice, kimchi, and a fried egg. In the seventies, Philip explained, Korean kids always shook up their metal lunch boxes before eating them, and at Baekjeong - which aims for a “1970s industrial Korea feel” - customers are encouraged to do the same. But Philip emphasized that guests who do not know much about Korean food should not be worried. The waiters, who all speak English and Korean, “make sure to cater to customers who don’t know what’s going on.” For the most part, though, the Chinese tourists and Americans who make up most of Baekjeong’s clientele (“Koreans don’t like to wait in line,”) do know what is going on.“No one just walks in off the street,” Philip told me. “The kind of people who come here are in the know.”
When I asked the Manhattan Sideways team how they would best describe the atmosphere at Hangawi, they said at once, “tranquil…serene.” I knew we would have a delicious culinary experience at this vegetarian Korean restaurant, but I had no idea how pleasant and peaceful it would be. Barely through the front door, we were politely asked to remove our shoes and leave them on the floor. On the way out, we just found them neatly placed in cubbies along the wall. We were seated at a wooden table close to the floor, but not low enough to make us uncomfortable. Silky red cushions placed on top of the wood allowed our feet to dangle. The servers moved about with ease and grace, taking orders and serving one outstanding dish after another. Sipping on ginger tea that was packed with flavor, we ordered a few different dishes—there was so much that we wanted to sample! For starters, the small stuffed shiitake mushrooms stacked on a piece of tofu with cinnamon almond dressing was so delicious that I had to take tiny bites—I did not want the pleasure to end. The pumpkin noodles with sautéed vegetables had a divine flavor and were cooked to perfection. The last item that we ordered came in a cast iron bowl with a bubbling, richly spiced broth, tofu, mushrooms, vegetables and bite-sized rice cakes. Served on the side was kimchi – both plain and with a red hot sauce. All of it was absolutely amazing. I could eat at Hangawi multiple times a week and never tire of their menu, or the “balance and harmony” that they effortlessly convey.
After visiting the newly opened Renwick, Olivia, Tom and I walked west to its sister hotel, the Gregory. Originally built in 1903 and known as “The Gregorian,” its purpose was to house spillover guests from the Waldorf Astoria. It was designed to be reminiscent of Upper West Side homes, with rooms that were double the height of normal hotels. In the mid-twentieth century, the Gregorian closed and the building passed through the hands of different hospitality groups. In 2015, however, the Gregory opened with the goal of recreating the hotel’s former glory. Susan Richardson, the Director of Marketing at the time, was pleased to give us a tour of the newly renovated hotel and to share some of the history, while also pointing out the various amenities and features. The overall design of the hotel is inspired by elements of the fashion world, as it is located in the garment district. Susan also mentioned that the Gregory is the only hotel that is a member of the Save the Garment Center movement and that they have recently formed a partnership with Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT).Susan explained that the hotel was designed with the goal of feeling "homey." The lobby was built to have the comfort of a living room, complete with the bar, called “The Liquor Cabinet.” The whimsical idea behind the name is that guests can “raid the Liquor Cabinet” during happy hour. While chatting, the bartender made one of their signature drinks, the Ginger Bootlegger, made with Bootlegger vodka, Cointreau, and ginger beer. The cozy, home-away-from-home atmosphere is enhanced by the concierge desk, where guests are encouraged to sit down in an armchair as they check-in and to feel the warmth of the fireplace during the colder months of the year.Similar to the Renwick, the Gregory focuses on trying to manufacture many of the features of the hotel in New York City. The lobby’s wood floors were not only made in Manhattan, but cut right here in the building. The shelves, which held fashion books, sewing machines, and other relics of the design world, were also cut in the lobby. Adding to their strong link to its history, we observed the pictures of the original hotel on the wall, along with an old menu and various artworks from the early twentieth century.Before heading into the elevator, we stopped into Brendan’s, the lively Irish pub connected to the hotel. The restaurant used to be the Gregorian’s Palm Court. “They are a great neighbor,” Susan said. Upstairs, we stepped inside an impressive guest room. It was remarkable how different the Gregory and the Renwick are, but with the same careful attention to detail and emphasis on guest comfort. Where the Renwick has eclectic images and outside-the-box design, the Gregory has clean lines and simple patterns. As Susan so aptly described it, “The Renwick is the artist and the Gregory is the tailor.” There are hints of the fashion world everywhere, including Do Not Disturb signs made of ties and framed clothing patterns on the walls. Like the Renwick, each of the beds are custom made for the hotel. Although both hotels are designed for the transient traveler, Susan feels that the Gregory appeals to a slightly younger crowd - one that wants a warm, communal place to work and network. With that in mind, guests are encouraged to come down to the lobby for coffee in the morning and mingle with one another. The tech industry has started drifting into the neighborhood and Susan feels that members of the tech world appreciate the chance to meet people and work in the living room environment of the lobby. “We are creating a culture of offering guests an experience,” she said, smiling.
At Gallery 35, we were charmed, entertained and educated on the staff's commitment to their own work and the art community as a whole. Sharing space, one flight up, with others affiliated with the Community Church next door, Gallery 35 is only open on Saturday evenings. Each week they showcase the work of a collective of artists, using media and styles across the board – water colors, digital media, glass painting, quilts, wood cuts. Once a year, the gallery hosts shows featuring artists from around the world. The most recent rendition featured paintings and quilts from Cuban and Brazilian artists. I was particularly taken by the story behind the art that was exhibited in the winter of 2013. Vidho Lorville, a native of Haiti, who had been painting for over twenty years before the earthquake struck his country, was chosen to be the guest artist. His commitment to the people and the celebration of the rebirth of Haiti were not only displayed in his work, but he also chose to donate a portion of the proceeds from Gallery 35 towards programs in Haiti.
Stepping off the elevator on the 18th floor, we had the feeling that we might run into the Queen of Hearts lounging and looking out over the city. Our visit was not during peak hours, so we missed bumping elbows with the chic crowd that normally populates Monarch, but we did get a sense of the futurist atmosphere and the ever-lovely views afforded by a visit. The Empire State Building, long a favorite of our crew, towers majestically in unimpeded splendor to the south. Brick walls give way to geometric, angular wooden walls and ceilings. Lights hang down in mobile-like formations, while chandeliers drip aquatically nearby in a tented heated area that can be utilized throughout the year. The furniture is comfortable and swoopingly high-backed. When our friends want to feel like City royalty, we certainly know where to send them.
Situated somewhere between Irish and American, straddling, too, the distinction between refinement and seaminess, Playwright offers food, drink, sports and a place to rest. The fare is traditional American with a few British accents thrown in - Shepherd's Pie and Fish & Chips to be exact. On the main floor, there are flatscreens aplenty above a long bar bursting with ales. American sports games are shown and, of course, Playwright is always showcasing European soccer games. On the second level, a more traditional dining area in the front gives way to a comfortable seating area in back. With its mixture of old regal furniture pieces collected over the years, in faded burgundies, beiges and browns, and an electric fireplace, Playwright has provided an inviting atmosphere for many to cozy up.
The blending of Cuban and Chinese culture at Calle Dao is evident from the moment one steps into the restaurant in which Cuban cigar boxes and fresco walls neighbor Chinese vases and figurines. When we stopped by, we had the chance to sit down to chat with owner Marco Britti, who is also responsible for the innovative interior decoration. He told us that the décor is meant to “transport you back to Havana.” With meticulous attention to each detail including a gate patterned exactly like a traditional style of door in Havana, and intricately distressed wooden chairs, the space is remarkably cohesive.Marco’s own life has been somewhat of a fusion as well. Originally from Naples, Italy, he moved to New York in 1996. He told us, “as an immigrant I left Italy to go to New York. So I know what it is like to leave everything behind, try something out and make a business out of it.” While pursuing a music career – Marco plays the drums – he also worked part time in restaurants. In 1999 he took a trip to Cuba, and ended up living in the Chinatown of Havana for nine months. While there, he learned about the wave of Cuban-Chinese restaurants and was struck by the Chinese influence on the cooking culture. Upon returning to New York, he found that there had not been much development of Cuban-Chinese fusion in the city, which furthered his interest in the restaurant industry. He went on to open his first restaurant, Cubana Café, and later Favela Cubana, both of which presented dishes from different cultures side-by-side. The complete fusion was only realized when he went on to open Calle Dão in the late summer of 2014, partnering with executive chef Humberto Guallpa. Marco said that his situation now is not something he would have ever predicted, and remarks that “it’s interesting to see how you can cross paths in life like that. All of a sudden you are doing something else.”
Former bankers, husband and wife team Xian Zhang and Yiming Wang, certainly have found a successful niche on 37th Street. If we had not already read that the interior of Cafe China was decorated to resemble Shanghai during the 1930s, we might have guessed that we were having lunch in a 1950s American diner replete with red vinyl chairs and a vintage mint colored mini fridge next to the bar. Once we sat down at our table, however, and had an opportunity to further explore the restaurant, the classy 1930s Shanghai elements became clear. There is a beautiful chandelier twinkling in the back room, blue velvet covering the quaint booths on one side of the restaurant, and Chinese characters decorating some of the prints that hang on the walls. Once past the intriguing decor, we began to concentrate on the menu. The Sideways team ordered some of our favorite staples including wonton soup, vegetable pot stickers, cold sesame noodles and pork dumplings - all perfectly prepared. But it was the Ma Po Tofu dish that stole the show. Having recently learned of this delectable dish, I was eager to try it, and what better place than at a Michelin star restaurant. I was promised it would not be made too spicy for me. It certainly had a kick, but I was able to appreciate the various flavors of the dish and loved it.